Sunday, March 25, 2012


On Friday 24th February, 2012, a seminar by Biotecture on Earthships was held at Bond University’s Cerum Theartre on the Gold Coast in Queensland. Three weeks prior to this date, an article in The Weekend Australian Magazine (February 04-05, 2012), reported on Michael Reynolds’ company and his structures that he calls ‘Earthships’ – see Burning Ambition. The attached images showed an interesting sculptured home that the text elaborated upon in some detail, explaining the philosophy behind this approach to housing. It was seductive. Tyres and general trash were the basis of this technique of construction that used energy-saving principles to service the interior living spaces that could be kept at a comfortable 21 degrees celsius with nothing but natural heating and cooling in all climates, both freezing and tropical, passively, without any extra energy input. The house also grew all the food that a family of four would need. So confident was Mr. Reynolds of his proposal that he guaranteed to pay the extra utility running costs if they rose above $100.00 per annum.

It all sounded romantically idyllic. Cheap housing, no huge mortgages, comfort and beauty, for the materials seemed cheap and the images attractive. The article spoke about a couple in Kinglake – Daryl Taylor and Lucy Filor - who had lost their house in the Victorian fires. They were going to construct a new home on their site, an Earthship incorporating the ruins of their old home, because these Biotecture buildings were also fireproof. The budget for the greenhouse face of this project is $260,000.00. The remainder of the house is to be built from recycled materials. The article seemed to suggest that the total is probably less that a conventional home that relies on traditional energy input, but this is not clear. Still, the Earthship appeared to have an answer for everything. The article noted that Mr. Reynolds was coming to Australia to start work on this house and give some seminars. It seemed to me that Biotecture needed more research, so Google was clicked.

It took only two web sites to discover that Mr. Reynolds was travelling north to the Gold Coast to give a seminar during his visit. His plans were to speak at more detailed sessions in Adelaide and Melbourne, but the Gold Coast and nearby Bangalow were going to be given an opportunity to hear Mr. Reynolds’ story too – just $28.00 per person. So tickets were booked on-line. Well, a payment was made and a receipt was received. One supposed that this was sufficient evidence for entry. It is interesting to ponder just why little Bangalow, of all other places in Australia, was selected to be on the list for lectures. Does it have a large ‘hippie/greenie’ population that might warm to the Earthship ideas? Did Mr. Reynold’s have a potential project in the vicinity? And the Gold Coast? Still, it seemed an interesting matter to follow up.

Friday was a rainy night that made the approach to Bond University along wet, reflective roads only more confusing than it appeared to be as roundabouts wove their tricks. Even the campus map and university signage did not help much as main signs faced away from one-way traffic flows, making one manoeuvre around extended loops to discover the information being displayed. It was a frustrating start to a planning/design evening. Why are institutions so blind to the needs of the stranger? Surely good design accommodates all with dignity, simplicity, grace and ease rather than causing repeated frustration and failure? Is this the problem with the ‘look-at-me’ design approach?

One was stamped on the wrist at the entry and then allowed to settle into the theatre to listen to iPhone users engaged in their own self-important performances. With the advertised 6:45pm start stretching out to just after 7:00pm as others dawdled in, the introduction was finally made, not for Biotecture, but for a movie to be shown at the Gold Coast on 5th March – Wasteland. It seemed that this production had something in common with Mr. Reynolds’ work - rubbish - and might be of interest to those who turned up to hear the Earthship message - building from trash. The subject of the film was apparently the making of art out of refuse and the generation of good feelings amongst the workers on the tip. It looked interesting. It had won many awards. Awards seem to confirm something for some just by their naming, without anyone really knowing the details of what or why.

Mr. Reynolds eventually took the floor and immediately played a short video of his work in Haiti. It was a tiny project – a 12 foot-diameter hut built using his system. It displayed in miniature the principles his Earthships were based on. It also highlighted the potential social impact of such a strategy for housing in third-world countries. The exuberance of those involved became a joyous display of song and dance that seemed overly excessive in relation to the actual outcome. One could only assume that the potential was enormous. Still, this little hut did cost $4,000.00 – modest but still a challenge for Haiti. Just how these huts could come to replace the tents in a structured and organised manner to suit the community’s social demands was sketched only diagrammatically, but was never exposed for any considered review or analysis. The critical issue of such environmental strategies is not how the one shelter might work, but how the many might operate as an organism. One unit can be made to look beautiful, but one hundred? What are the public spaces like? What hierarchical arrangements are to be used for villages and towns beyond ordinary geometrically patterned design layouts? Without a successful adaptation strategy for quantity, environmental approaches such as these will remain quirky asides, unique wonders, rather than global solutions.

Thoughts wandered as the video finished and Mr. Reynolds – everyone was now calling him ‘Michael’ as though he was a long-lost friend – started his presentation. He explained that his houses were not for hippies, greenies and social dropouts, even though he struggled to find an image that could illustrate appearances to prove this point. Most photographs showed peculiar forms and shapes that recalled the ‘hippie,’ ad hoc, self-build forms of the 1960s. Eltham mud brick houses came to mind. Almost as an apology he tried to suggest that his homes were normal on the inside, and flicked quickly through images that tried to display this concept – smooth walls and normal furniture. But even here, the eccentric sculptured detailing appeared in parts as fireplaces, columns, ledges, seating and claddings. All tyres and trash had been concealed, covered in plaster. Only the cans and bottles that had been built into the concrete walls could be seen as decorative panels and friezes.

Little self-deprecating jokes fluttered throughout Mr. Reynolds’ presentation as if to make him appear foolishly brilliant, perhaps rather like the cliché absent-minded professor or the misunderstood guru. He explained that he had lost his architectural registration in Mexico so had to invent the name Biotecture for his sustainable architecture. Apparently the silly officials did not like the sewer in the living room. The subtext might have been that they failed to recognise genius. These little jokes only appeared to stimulate the audience into little indulgent giggles of agreeable bemusement that highlighted the hagiographical course of the evening. Mr. Reynolds spoke of his disquiet with the word ‘sustainable’ as he had once been shown a ‘sustainable’ nuclear reactor. This playing with meanings is a core problem with things green, especially with the ‘green star’ calculations that take numbers as a framework to prove experienced performance, as if additions and quantities equated to anything other than a mathematical total of items arbitrarily labelled ‘stars,’ perhaps inspired by the ratings of movies or hotel accommodation. All of this serious calculation seems randomly remote from reality when, say, the ten bicycle racks, showers and lockers, and, say, the fifty small car parking areas at the front door that could add the extra star or two might never be used. Yet the star rating is still the statistic promoted in the boasting about a building’s ‘green’ quality. The same cynicism with the relevance of hotel ratings where stars can be gained for an extra chair and a full-length mirror, or lost because of a dirty spoon or lack of a corkscrew, lingers in the mathematics of green buildings. It seems perfectly possible to have a six-star pigsty as well as a six-star academic building - perhaps side by side?

Mr. Reynolds explained how he used locally available trash – tyres, tins, glass bottles, paper, plastic and metal panels – and anything else that might be able to be collected nearby. He elaborated on the systems of air extraction and intake, and passive heating and cooling that would keep the home at 21 degrees celsius. His graph seemed to suggest a variation between 19 to 26 degrees, but this was never spoken about. The plumbing was traditional plumbing that had additional ‘bio loops’ attached, thus cleverly giving the local authority all of its specific requirements while solving the environmental challenges of zero emissions. The layered approach to comfort meant that the outer, warmer, brighter layer of glazed, greenhouse volumes could be used for growing food. Bananas and other plants were illustrated. Protein was available from fish living in tanks. All water was stored and reused in a cycle that saw rainwater treated to three different levels for different uses, to then be run through gravel beds for plant nutrients and subsequently used to flush the toilet. This waste then moved on to other planting beds for more food supply. It appeared as though the great vision of perpetual reuse had been solved, giving enough of everything for a family of four, forever, for almost nothing. One could only be impressed - amazed. Was it really possible?

Mr. Reynolds then stretched the idea further. He was obviously aware of the question of repetition – housing as clusters forming villages and towns: how does the model work for these situations? His images showed great linear strips of repeated homes with the front, glazed space becoming a transport corridor. It looked like a pedestrian way, but wasn’t this the hottest, therefore possibly the most unpleasant part - the greenhouse? How could it be a comfortable communal corridor? Then a 3D model video of how the system could be developed into a multistorey scheme – perhaps for China – flashed onto the screen. It used Corb’s basic 1920s classic slab and column framework infilled with the stepping Earthship homes and fitted with a large stair spiralling around a vertical axis wind generator. It was unclear how one might get from the stair to each house. The diagrammatically attractive moving 3D graphics were quickly skipped over to display a proposed scheme for New York – real highrise? Well, it looked to be only a two-storied below-ground development between two high Bronx browns, serviced with a giant mirror to catch and reflect the light down into these low spaces. The sketch was so schematic it was difficult to interpret accurately, but Mr. Reynolds’ enthusiasm seemed to overcome all possible doubts. One wondered: how would a street of these developments work?

The problem with this form of housing is not the one-off solution. The Bruce Goff/Herb Greene/Antonio Gaudi sculptured free forms in open country - desert, forest or mountain - always look beautiful. It is as though nature has been cajoled into a new difference using the same principles that made earth to provide habitation – a place for man and for his spirit to grow and glow. The context becomes a raw harmonic resonance that enhances the seeming reality of a mystic presence in these homes. Just how gathering these structures together might provide an equivalent quality on a larger scale remains unknown. Even basing a school plan on the geometry of a pretty blue flower, as Mr. Reynolds showed later, does not give the building any essential floral or subtle quality beyond the visual delicacy of the primary match. This numinous patterning may have nothing to do with the functioning of a school with its demanding social requirements, in spite of the suggestive illusions. One is encouraged to interpolate matters in this change of scale by transferring every nice feeling about the one into the conglomerate clustering of the many without ever really knowing just what the social implications might be. The patterns of villages and towns are never ad hoc or irrelevant. Their specific shaping is just as important to the functioning of the whole entity as the tiny spaces and details in the home are to the wellbeing of those living in it.

It is strange that China is noted as a place suited for the multi-storey version of Earthship, as if social need and poverty together might find its awkwardness acceptable, through the necessity of poverty: beggars can’t be choosers? The proposal is a rather incongruous collection of Corb and dirt without any vertical limits. What on earth (no pun intended) is going to happen to the gridded spaces between the columns and slabs behind the stepping standard homes – well, Earthships – that have been slotted into one edge of this reinforced concrete frame that could apparently go up to ten stories or more? Potential heights beyond three levels were not illustrated so the details of the idea were never displayed. These rear spaces appeared to offer all of the nasty threats of car parking areas and under-bridge spaces. In the same way, it seemed that the grand strips of transport corridors in the linear proposal would offer no great charm beyond that apparent in the high-rise apartment block that has external balcony access - like the infamous Priutt-Igoe model of modernism. Gathering for town-making is much more complex than simple multiplication and extension, and requires more subtlety and care than town planners seem to be able to bring to their profession that now has uniquely large numbers in this present world - more than ever before - but, in spite of these quantities, it remains a world with an alarming number of grand failures in outcomes. Our cities are getting worse in spite of all our planning efforts, be these performance-based or otherwise.

The magic and mystery of the impossible – beauty and comfort for nothing, (well, for little or less) – is something everyone aspires to. Any suggested solution is easily enthusiastically grasped and held up as the work of a genius. Things are even better if the concept has been built – at least once. Mr. Reynolds enjoyed a heroic response on this Friday at the Cerum Theatre. There was a strange, over-agreeable, unquestioning feeling about the man with the long grey hair and broad accent. Do Australians still get excited about different voices, vowels and appearances? Do Australians still cringe at the accent and assume immediate superiority in the difference? The cringe came later in the evening when the moderator of the appointed expert discussion group embarrassingly asked Mr. Reynolds to say ‘banana’ once more – ‘ban-ann-na’ came out in contrast to her ‘barn-narn-ah.’ The response was a little squeal of delight - “Oh, isn’t that beautiful?” Well, no. One could only wince in silence, suppressing a whimpering cry of dismay. The moment was trite, like her manipulation of the crowd that was asked to exhale with a communal sigh to release the tensions of greening the world. The loud chorus of “Ah” only seemed to suggest that most were intoxicated by the genius of Mr. Reynolds and willing to play silly games compliantly – on call, to order, as if to overtly display this emotion to our visitor. What did Mr. Reynolds think of this?

The standing ovation that thanked Mr. Reynolds for coming “all of this way to talk to us” seemed to ignore the fact that Australians themselves are well travelled, are not unfamiliar with distance and difference, or intimidated by it, and should know that Mr. Reynolds is here to promote his company. The naïve colonial response to the stranger left one bemused, as it is this unthinking approach that sees no problems with the apparent answer to the challenges of the universe. If these matters are to be truly respected rather than blindly deified, then they need to be reviewed and criticised in the Popperian sense of things scientific - conjecture and refutation. Accepting conjectures without any refutation is never useful if one wants to get to the true heart of a matter. It is like debating with another who is never willing to change an idea or concept, and offering criticism to deaf ears. One must never be afraid of the challenge of questioning doubt. It can only improve matters – well, those beyond determined preconception that knows, and wants to know, no other possibility.

Earthships? The name is interesting. This home is likened to a ship. Ships are solitary objects that interact with the world and nature alone. Even in fleets they are singular. They do not like gatherings or great numbers as these cause anxiety about collisions. They need to keep their distance and unique identities. They are internal, turning their hard, protective outer shells to the environment as they house and shelter the occupants in homely comfort, in all weathers. The Earthships seem to do likewise. Is this the problem with their multiplication? They have only a front, literally turning their back to the world. What will happen to the backyard barbecue? The ‘cheap’ version of the Earthship - Mr. Reynolds acknowledges that his attractive promotional ‘Phoenix,’ (rising out of trash?), is expensive and elitist - becomes an uninspired, one-dimensional, small glass entry wall with graphic red flowers hiding the tyres. What happens when the flowers drop? Is the aim perhaps to minimise the most expensive part of this home – the glazing? While some cultures like the frontyard exposure for private living - I was told that the Turks in Cyprus love such displays - Australians are more reserved and love not just wide open spaces, but also the privacy of the backyard. What does the Earthship model offer other than potentially cheap, enclosed environmental bliss and food tucked into an earthen berm? What are its civic roles? What is its real potential in sets - in towns and cities?

The facts of habitation and performance in Mr.Reynolds’ presentation were very thin, all glossed over quickly as though they were undisputed truths. Providing your own protein with fish from the tank? He illustrated this with a child catching one fish with an overly long rod and then cooking it. The camera panned in to show decorative red carp gliding under the water plants. Are these fish or plants edible? What are the details for fish production? What space is required? What numbers? What is the cycle for sustainability? If a family eats fish three times a week, as some dieticians recommend, then at least a dozen large fish will be required every month; a gross in one year. What infrastructure is required to achieve this outcome? How many banana trees are needed? How many other plants and varieties have to be cajoled to continue production 24/7/52? Plants have cycles and seasons, as the Bible tells us everything has. Just what has to happen to allow for a constant, sustainable supply of food for four? Merely feeling good and happily enthusiastic about the possibility and being won over by singular images of luxurious green growth and fertile productivity is not enough, for this glory could be a very short-lived possibility.

One feels a little awkward asking questions about such an apparently beautiful concept for life and living, with its grand ambitions for the human spirit, but if the facts are ignored, there is nothing. Beauty must rest on facts and figures if it is to have depth and substance. Ephemeral dreams of possibilities need only pretty pictures and inspiring words for their sustenance. Mr. Reynolds is an enigma. He is rooted in both worlds of dream and fact. He ponders, promotes and builds. He knows the problems: how the challenge can become the criteria for creativity; how flexibility and adaptation are critical. He is sensitive enough to know that his approach cannot just be blandly reproduced for the Australian aboriginal shelter. He is an ardent promoter of love and care for our environment and in our lives. He has produced beautiful living conditions from waste. He is a realist. Just how he chooses to develop his idea beyond the pretty one-off and the singular, stand-alone structure will be of interest, for the world needs more than hope and love to survive, let alone thrive.

Sadly the fact is that we have a capitalist society. While Haiti and perhaps China might have tonnes of waste doing nothing and available for nothing, the developed world is already collecting and recycling waste. This has its own cost. One has already seen, with the growing popularity in the recycling of building products and other materials, how the management and supply of these items has become organised as businesses. Prices soar as demand and interest grows. Many years ago I purchased some old leadlight windows and doors for a refurbishment project. The windows were $20.00 each and the door was $70.00. If I were to try to buy these today, I would be asked to pay hundreds of dollars for each item. The idea has caught on. One can envisage a future of Earthship popularity where tyres become expensive, and where dirt is a valuable commodity. There will always be someone ready to make money out of this situation, in spite of the idyllic dreams. Such is the so-called developed world. It has already happened. Recycled materials are expensive now. A finger-jointed length of timber that is made from random off cuts is more expensive that the one piece of timber cut from the tree. Why?

Then there is the debate about local government building approval or certification. Everyone knows that government institutions are metaphorical brick walls. Look at the Bernard Madoff situation where a Government body was told repeatedly for nine years that Madoff was a fraud, but took no action. Natural market forces had to finally expose him, not the questioning or any investigation from the governing body. Our institutions are just as reluctant to take bold steps in spite of the facts. It is this apparent grandstanding when everything says otherwise that makes governments so frustrating. Earthships need more questions. Multiple Earthships need greater review. But the dream must be kept alive and not squashed by bland bureaucracy. Hero-worship and blind enthusiasm gets one nowhere. Rigour is critical. Mr. Reynolds knows this. Let’s hope he retains his ideals as he seeks to grow his dream. Let’s hope that Earthships can be truly tested for performance, both environmental and social, and prove to be a success. Living comfortably in an awkward social situation will never be satisfactory. The award-winning Pruitt-Igoe proved this. Facts are needed to match feelings on all scales.

It is suggested that Eartships are DIY – that everyone can get grand poetic outcomes by using trash. I suggest that the outcomes Mr. Reynolds showed us of his efforts rely a lot on his unique skills for their resolution - that Earthships cannot become beautifully assembled trash without the feeling, skills, knowledge, understanding, ambitions and the creative energy of Mr. Reynolds himself. His homes are unique. His solutions and approaches are his alone and require his input for their wonder. They are indeed beautiful – but I suggest personal. Beauty is never a necessary outcome of a DIY enterprise. It is usually otherwise. It would be interesting to see the results of the DIY projects that have not had any input from Mr. Reynolds. Apparently there are thousands (two thousand) but none were shown at the seminar. The movement implies that Mr. Reynolds’ creative, intuitive and inventive efforts/outcomes can all be replicated by others, but is it so? This perception leaves everything in an amorphous cloud, a little like all of the stories, facts and figures in this concept for recycling where, as Mr. Reynolds explains somewhat in jest, (but many a true word is said in jest), power is needed primarily for charging the iPhone and iPad.

One has to wonder what is wrong with a recycling strategy that uses some chosen trash as it ignores the tonnes of other waste generated by our society, like the ever-growing number of batteries that are discarded daily - in Australia at least - from our gadgets and solar devices: our iPhones and iPads and the like that were mentioned as part of the story, as a humourous aside? Are we dealing only with a quaint trendy fashion - here today, gone tomorrow? Is it a ‘feel good,’ distracting cringe by the 17% of the haves to the 83% of have-nots of this world - a quick moral fix to overcome guilt? There are lots of questions still to be addressed. Feeling good is just not good enough. It is indulgent and gives us ill-considered signs like that at Bond University - looking the wrong way. We need to make sure we start looking the right way and asking more questions rather than being mystified by accents and longhaired strangers or our own importance.

So how does one encourage students to develop an interest in recycling? Should one? It was suggested that Bond University might build an Earthship, (even though it may never be used as a home), to have its architectural students involved in its construction as an exercise. There is something close to the obscene here: to have students paying tens of thousands of dollars a year training to recycle trash, has a quality that does not appear genuine or in tune with the feelings of the primary raw intent. The world is topsy-turvy. I have recently seen real ‘grass roots’ recycling in Penang. Folk who earn as little as 16 – 20 ringgits a day, (six to seven Australian dollars), collect the smallest of items and quantities and take them to the local agent in the nearby shop house that is filled with heaps, piles and stacks of refuse that have been weighed, sorted and organised ready to be moved on. All this is done for a small but modestly critical payment of cash. I saw the hotel maid dragging two large plastic bags of plastic bottles to this agent. It was trash she had collected from the rooms - perhaps her ‘pocket money,’ but I think it is more essential, more necessary than this idle luxury. Others load their bicycles high with the waste to transport it for cash – anything has some value, even a few cardboard boxes. I watched a man shell garlic bulbs just to collect the outer layers for reuse. Boxes of orange peel lay out in the sun drying to be reclaimed. There is a necessity here - something genuine and in scale with the lifestyle where metalwork is still carried out by a human hand tapping with a wooden mallet, making letter boxes, cake tins, stainless steel downpipes, copper floats and more, while sitting on the floor. The blinds that give Penang’s its characteristic tropical charm are all assembled slat by slat in an identical shop house to that of the waste merchant’s store and the metalworker’s workshop. Similar spaces are used as retail areas for the gold merchant, the local restaurant, the chemist, and the haberdashery shop. The model of this patterning works well.

We need a more sincere involvement in our building, care and understanding, and should not be satisfied with some indulgent worshipping of a design messiah who is making 1960s structures with some passive energy additions for an unknown future that is optimistically promoted as positive. It may not be. It will take much more to attend to the problems of our world than some Earthships and a few bananas, no matter how one might choose to pronounce this word – but it is a start, a start to get people thinking more seriously about what we must do in our world and how we can achieve this. One can only wish Mr. Reynolds good luck.

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